Los Angeles

Mathilde ter Heijne

Vielmetter Los Angeles

“I heard her voice, dry as my own, thin, high, and in her nose, with the old outdoors and down the mountain sound to it,” wrote Woody Guthrie in 1947. “Singing to us as she had sung into the rifle fire of Sheriff Blair’s deputies, Sarah Ogan got the house of people to keep so still that the cat licking his hair sounded like a broomstick rubbed against a washtub.” Sarah Ogan Gunning was the daughter and wife (and, no surprise, widow) of coal miners from Kentucky. She first gained fame as a singer-songwriter and activist for mine workers’ rights in the 1930s. Templates for the work of Loretta Lynn, if not of P J Harvey, Gunning’s most popular songs included “I Am a Girl of Constant Sorrow” (a feminized take on the standard), “I Hate the Company Bosses” (also known as “I Hate the Capitalist System”), and an a capella rendition of a dirge appropriately titled “O Death.”

The last of these, electronically slowed down to a maudlin groan, with lyrics stretched out to their perceptual breaking point, provided the haunting sound track for Mathilde ter Heijne’s recent exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter. (Pity the gallery staff, who were required to listen to such heartbreaking music for a month.) The centerpiece of the show was the four-minute video No Depression in Heaven, 2006, in which the artist performed dueling Depression-era roles of dirt-poor housewife and wealthy Southern matriarch. No Depression knowingly borrows from silent-era weepies and employs what initially appears to be classic Hollywood crosscut editing to take the viewer from the poor character’s Appalachian shack to the other’s well-appointed plantation house. One soon realizes that the spaces are unexpectedly contiguous, and the two opposing characters are brought together for a pistol duel whose outcome—though presumably tragic—is unclear as the screen fades to black.

While ter Heijne’s elliptical narrative never quite matches the stark, elegiac tone of her slowed-down version of “O Death”—a tall order to be sure—it succeeds in constructing an intriguing, distorted filmic space that recalls the specific historical materiality and artifice of silent cinema without attempting to simulate it exactly: Even with its theatrical backdrop and painted glass mattes in the foreground, ter Heijne’s color video loop, driven by meticulous research and her performance as mirrored personae, is a blatantly contemporary fabrication.

The video was accompanied by the two-part installation Depression Years, 2007, consisting of, first, a painted canvas backdrop (used in the video) representing a view of the Appalachians from a veranda with classical Greek columns, and, second, a waxy, life-size dummy of ter Heijne as a barefoot woman standing in a pile of dirt. Like an animatronic model from a low-grade theme park, the dummy sings Gunning’s song. Similar dummies have a recurring role in most of the artist’s installations and videos—often meeting absurdly tragic ends at the hands of the artist, as in the videos Mathilde, Mathilde and Suicide Bomb (both 2000)—suggesting an ongoing struggle with self-image and the complex construction of personal identity. Here, however, because the artist plays both characters in No Depression in Heaven, the role of the dummy seems unresolved, positioning the work as a somewhat awkward double to the more compelling video.

In the project room was Woman to Go, 2005–, a simple but provocative series of several hundred black-and-white postcards (to which gallery visitors could help themselves) featuring found nineteenth-century images of anonymous, frequently “exotic” women from around the world. The back of each of these cards features the biography of an “exceptional” woman from the same period—most of whom, like Sarah Gunning, are now largely forgotten. The postcards, like the chant of “O Death,” leave a ghostly trace.

Michael Ned Holte